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How to Keep an Unsatisfactory Teacher Evaluation from Failing

Most teacher evaluations—I’ll conservatively say 98%—are “satisfactory” or better. (Here are some numbers from 2013).

That doesn’t mean that nearly all teachers are doing a great job; it just means that we as administrators very rarely go to the trouble of marking a teacher as unsatisfactory.

Why? Because it’s a lot of work, and it often doesn’t “work.”

What’s A Successful Bad Evaluation?

If you have a teacher who isn’t getting the job done, and hasn’t improved despite being urged and helped to do so, an unsatisfactory evaluation may be in order.

But what is this supposed to accomplish?

(And no, this is not a rhetorical question—we do need to give unsatisfactory evaluations when they’re called for).

We should be looking for one of two outcomes when we give a negative evaluation:

  1. Improvement. It’s a wake-up call, yes, but a negative evaluation should also result in a great deal more attention and support to help the teacher improve.
  2. Termination. If a teacher has repeatedly demonstrated that they aren’t going to improve to an acceptable level any time soon, an unsatisfactory evaluation should lead to that teacher’s termination.
  3. But too many principals rely on a deeply flawed assumption.

    Evaluation Is Not Harassment, and Harassment Is Not Evaluation

    A lot of administrators try to combine a little bit of evaluation with a little bit of meanness, thinking:

    “If I give them a hard enough time, they’ll leave.”

    No, no, and no.

    Time and time again, I’ve seen that backfire on administrators.

    Your options are:

    1. Help the teacher improve to an acceptable level.
    2. Do whatever it takes to have the teacher terminated.

    You cannot cause a voluntary resignation. You just can’t, and if you try, you’ll end up with a mess.

    Do a half-hearted job of documenting and supporting, and throw in a hefty load of meanness for good measure, and you’re going to have your whole staff mad at you, instead of thanking you for holding their underperforming colleague accountable.

    You can only do negative evaluations right if you have your ducks in a row, and far too many negative evaluations “fail” because we, the evaluators, don’t have our stuff together.

    The solution, as any Boy Scout could tell you, is to be prepared.

    What Unprepared Looks Like

    Not Knowing What’s Happening
    Final evaluations are usually due in May or June in the US, and we usually start thinking about them when certain deadlines—for goal-setting, for observations, for written reports, for renewal decisions—are approaching.

    Too often, though, we’re unprepared for these deadlines because we don’t know enough about what’s actually taking place in classrooms.

    We rely on proxies like collegial behavior, orderly students, or a lack of complaints for parents, and we have no idea what’s actually taking place during lessons.

    (If you want to make sure this isn’t the case in your school, join us for the free 21-Day Instructional Leadership Challenge).

    When we reach the end of the year and realize things aren’t going well in a particular teacher’s classroom, we’re left with a terrible choice: pretend everything is fine (since we don’t have enough evidence to submit a solid negative evaluation), or give an anemic unsat that will neither help the teacher grow nor result in their dismissal.

    Lacking Evidence
    It goes without saying that an unsat requires loads of evidence, and that evidence needs to be in writing (or in some cases, documents, photos, or other artifacts).

    We keep far too much in our heads.

    If you want to help a teacher improve, you need evidence of their current practice so you can identify specific steps for them to take. And you need evidence of their improvement.

    If you want to make sure a teacher doesn’t come back next year, you need evidence of what’s going on, what you’ve done to improve the situation, and how the teacher has responded.

    This evidence needs to be outside of your own head, and it needs to be organized so you can pull it together easily.

    (Keep stuff in Evernote if in doubt.)

    Failing to Decide What Outcome We Want
    The third way we can be unprepared is to be unclear about what we want to happen.

    If you don’t know whether you want the teacher to improve or be fired, your actions to make that happen are going to be scattershot.

    Of course, we should want all teachers to improve. But sometimes we also want people to leave, because we can tell it’s not going to work out, at least not without many more years of sacrificing students’ learning in the faint hope that the teacher will improve.

    (If you want someone to leave because they aren’t a good fit, that’s another issue. Bad evaluations are for bad teaching, period.)

    You never have to be mean, but at a certain point, you do have to decide which way it’s going to go, and proceed accordingly.

    If you’re going to fire someone, you can’t pull any punches. And if you’re going to help them improve and stay on your staff, you have a relationship to maintain—one that involves very clear expectations for continued improvement.

    But let me be very clear on this point: You should never simply hope that someone will leave voluntarily because you gave them a bad evaluation.

    That may well happen—in fact, it probably happens a hundred times more often than an actual termination—but if a voluntary resignation is your goal, you’ll get sloppy about collecting evidence and supporting the teacher’s improvement, and you can’t afford to do that.

    It’s just as likely that it’ll backfire, and you’ll end up with an angry staff, a very angry bad teacher, and nothing to show for it.

    Be Prepared

    Know what’s going on in your classrooms. Gather evidence, even if you’re not sure if you’ll need it. Be nice, but be diligent in preparing for all of your evaluations.

    And especially be prepared for those that might not be positive.

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because of my workshop on the topic:

    Preparing for Negative Teacher Evaluations Workshop

    I’m currently offering a new workshop (part of the High-Performance Instructional Leadership Network, but registration is open to the public) called Preparing for Negative Teacher Evaluations.

    I’ll share my best strategies for making the sure this painful, but necessary, process accomplishes its goals.

    You’ll learn:

    • How to distinguish between the “coaching hat” and the evaluator role
    • How to prioritize among struggling staff and avoid taking on too much at once
    • How to gain the support of key players such as union representatives and your supervisor
    • How to keep the paperwork straight and get it done on time
    • How to hold teachers accountable for their performance without creating unreasonable demands or causing discouragement
    • How to create and follow through on clear expectations for improved performance

    And more. Learn more or register here »

When Paperwork Comes Between People

Two people

How do you treat people well when your relationship is mediated by a clunky, externally mandated system?

In case no examples come to mind, let me be more specific…

How do you treat your teachers as human beings when you have a formal evaluation system with 692 steps to complete and forms to fill out?

Whenever a good idea gets turned into a policy, it inevitably gets clunky and impersonal. “I need to help my staff grow professionally” turns into “I have 240 one-on-one meetings with teachers this year, each accompanied by a form.”

“What are you proud of, and what are you struggling with?” turns into a form.

Classroom visits turn into formal observations.

I’m not opposed to any of this formalization, because without it, we’d have nothing at all in place in too many schools. Clunky and formal is better than nothing. We need ways to ensure that our students are receiving high-quality teaching and that our staff are continuing to grow, even if that means lots of paperwork.

But one thing I know about leadership is that people follow humans who are leaders, not systems that are run by people with leadership titles.

If your leadership consists of implementing the policies and procedures dictated by others, and nothing else, your staff have no one to follow. They need leadership, and leadership is inherently human and relational.

The Alternative

The best leaders treat the systems and procedures as a baseline for what they need to get done, then quickly move on to the real work.

“We need to get this form filled out, but I’ll take care of that—let’s talk about what’s really going on.”

Have your leaders said things like this to you? Mine have. I’ve been shown, by example, how to take the issues seriously but put the person first. I’ve seen how to meet the deadline and keep the state happy, without forgetting that the purpose of evaluating someone is to make sure they’re doing a good job.

Once that’s been done, we can devote 100% of our energy to helping them do a good job.

And if you don’t know until the form’s filled out whether someone is doing a good job? Then you don’t know them well enough to lead them.

How do you make sure the real human work happens, in between forms, deadlines, and signatures? How do you bring out the best in your staff?

Should I Have Fired That Person?

Looking back on this school year, is there someone you should have fired?

It’s a harsh question, but a fair one.

In every organization, there are going to be people who fail at their jobs for one reason or another.

As school leaders, it’s our job to act with all urgency, decisiveness, and diligence to handle these situations in the best interests of students.

But termination isn’t the only option when a staff member is underperforming.

Step Zero

Before changing someone’s employment and their life, we have to make sure we’ve done two crucial things.

First, clear job descriptions and plenty of clarity about expectations are essential, especially for non-traditional positions such as coaches and specialists. People can’t get better at work they aren’t clear about.

Second, everyone deserves the opportunity to improve in response to specific, timely feedback. People need to know how they’re doing and how to improve. If that hasn’t happened, it’s unfair to even think about terminating someone.

That’s why frequent, informal classroom visits are so important.

Even if clear expectations and timely feedback aren’t solving the problem, there are alternatives to termination that may be better for everyone.

A Step Down…As A Step Up

Moving someone into a job with less responsibility is often a good option when someone isn’t succeeding despite corrective efforts and support.

Sometimes this is helpful when an employee has been moved to a new job that is beyond their abilities. In these cases, the best solution may be a return to their previous role.

I’ve also found that a fair number of struggling teachers are capable, but are simply overwhelmed due to other demands, such as dealing with ailing parents.

In these cases, a job with a bit less responsibility and no evening or weekend duties can make all the difference.

I’ve seen a number of teachers move successfully into classroom assistant roles—a step down in status and pay, certainly, but much better than termination. We owe it to our dedicated staff to make options like this available.

A Better Fit

Sometimes the problem isn’t about performance, but is just a mismatch between employee and leader, or between employee and school. If that’s truly the case, the best approach may be to help the employee find a school that’s a better fit.

I hesitate to recommend this option, because it’s easy to tell ourselves “This person would be fine at another school” even when they wouldn’t. We owe it to the profession, and to the students in other schools, not to let ourselves off the hook for doing proper evaluations and terminating people who are harming kids.

But I think mismatch is a real possibility, especially in large school systems where people are placed in schools rather than hired by the individual school. With no opportunity to develop a good match, and with regular leadership turnover, mismatch can easily become a problem.

Tough Calls

We owe it to students to do the hard work of ensuring that the right educators remain in the profession, and in the right roles. It’s our job to ensure that all of our staff will do right by kids, developing and refining the skills they need to serve with excellence.

What helps you make the right call when dealing with underperforming staff?

3 Two Lies About Teacher Evaluation and Growth

What’s the evaluation process all about? It depends on who’s asking.

With teachers, we focus on growth, and that’s generally as it should be.

With the public, we mention the growth goal, but we also make it clear that the evaluation process lets us deal with underperformance.

But in speaking to each of these audiences, we can confuse ourselves and start to believe two pervasive lies about teacher evaluation and growth.

Two lies

The first lie: “If we focus enough on improvement, we’ll never need to fire anyone.

The second lie: “Rigorously evaluating our teachers will help them grow.

Both are false. Neither is a reason to abandon the two goals of the evaluation process:

  1. Growth: To help teachers improve their practice
  2. Quality Control: To ensure high-quality teaching and learning in every classroom

If these are both good goals, what’s the problem? Simple: the two goals are totally unrelated, except in their ultimate purpose. In fact, they’re even a bit incompatible.

All professionals need to grow, and having a framework like Charlotte Danielson’s to aid your reflection and help you map out your growth process is enormously helpful. But what’s not helpful is to have someone else give you a rating and tell you where you need to grow.

Let me be really clear on this point: Giving someone a rating can identify where they need to grow—and this is a crucial starting point for growth—but it does nothing to actually help them grow.

If I’m sick, I want my doctor to tell me what’s wrong, but the diagnosis itself isn’t going to make me well.

I think we’re muddled on this issue because we fail to realize that performance has two components: Skill and behavior. If you’re talented but not really putting in much effort, you’re not going to achieve great things. On the other hand, working your tail off at something you’re bad at isn’t going to yield fabulous results either.

As administrators, our most direct influence over teaching quality in the evaluation process is on behavior: If someone is not doing what they need to be doing, we can tell them to make a change, and hold them accountable for doing so. If you’re not planning and preparing for your lessons adequately, your administrator can demand that you start turning in lesson plans. Because the focus is behavior, the change can happen immediately.

Assuming we’re picking the right behaviors, this absolutely can lead to improvement. Supervision can change behavior. But to improve skill, you need coaching. And coaching is not the same as supervision.

One of the best movements to improve coaching in the principalship is the #educoach work being done by Shira Leibowitz, Jessica Johnson, and Kathy Perret, who tell me Jim Knight’s work is worth its weight in gold. Their premise is straightforward: instructional leaders need to get good at coaching in order to help staff improve their skills.

But now it gets sticky: If we want to evaluate people rigorously so they know what they’re good at and what they aren’t, and we want to coach them to help them get better, we have to decide which hat we’re wearing at any given time.

I have to realize that when I’m wearing my evaluator hat, I’m giving up the right to serve as a coach in that moment. And when I coach, I have to set aside my evaluator mindset and work to help my “client” meet his or her own goals through the coaching process.

Hopefully there’s some alignment between what people are working to grow in, and what we see as their needs and opportunities based on the evaluation process, but beyond that, we shouldn’t muddle evaluation and coaching. They are different, and need to be handled in distinct ways.

We mustn’t believe the lies that tell us that any vague efforts at “improvement” will help people grow and ensure high-quality teaching in every classroom.

We can’t coach our way out of our responsibility to conduct rigorous evaluations, and we can’t evaluate our way to better teaching. As instructional leaders, we have to wear both hats, whether we like it or not. Just not at the same time.

Oh, and one more thing: most of us believe these lies, or act like we do. Principals who both use the evaluation process to deal with serious underperformance, and effectively coach teachers to help them grow, are few and far between indeed. More on this soon.

Can You Supervise Your Way to Better Teaching?

When I lead workshops on teacher evaluation, people always say “I want the process to help my teachers grow.”

It’s understandable: As growth-oriented educators, we want to help our teachers improve their skills.

But as I learn more and more about what leads to growth, I keep coming back to one thing that surely doesn’t: supervision.


Now, supervision is essential—make no mistake. The principalship exists in part to make sure that all of our teachers are up to a certain standard of quality (hopefully a high one, though the national statistics make me wonder how high our standards are when 97% or more of our ratings are “good enough” or higher).

But does supervision help teachers improve?

Let’s step back from the question of principals supervising teachers for a minute. Does supervising, inspecting, evaluating, or otherwise observing and judging lead to improvement anywhere?

You might say yes, but if we narrow down where the improvement happens, it’s usually after the supervision has taken place, perhaps due to follow-up action like coaching or accessing a helpful resource.

I’d argue that supervision itself never causes growth. Why? Because supervision alone cannot improve people’s skills. To improve skill, you need deliberate practice with feedback. You need coaching.

What supervision can do is influence behavior. And it’s very good at this. When your staff knows what you want to see, they will do more of it, and they’ll do less of what you don’t want—if they believe you’ll notice and care.

When someone knows he’ll get fired if he doesn’t start showing up on time, he’ll start showing up on time.

When someone has decided not to follow the district pacing guide, supervision can change that behavior fast.

When someone is making snide remarks in staff meetings and bringing down the professional tone, you can set the expectation, monitor, and ultimately change the behavior.

So even though I don’t think supervision can lead to growth, I do think it can lead to improvement, because performance is a result not just of your skill, but of what you actually do.

In other words, even if you can’t use the supervision process to help every teacher grow, you can use it to lead to improved teaching and learning by promoting the right behaviors. Behaviors like being prepared every day, treating students respectfully, following through, sharing assessment results, and other actions that lead to better learning.

A lot of the behaviors we can supervise into improvement are negative behaviors—stop showing up late, stop yelling at kids, stop under-preparing, and so on—but a lot are positive, too. Before we can help people improve their skill, we need to make sure they’re doing the thing that we want them to get better at.

After all, improving an aspect of your practice can’t happen unless that aspect of practice is in your practice.

When my school began implementing a new writing curriculum, my focus was on coaching. But I quickly realized that people couldn’t be coached on something they weren’t doing. You can’t improve the clarity of your lesson’s teaching point if your lessons never have teaching points.

Before I could coach, I needed to supervise. I needed to set the expectation and follow through. Then—and only then—could I coach.

What behaviors do you want to see more (or less) of to improve student learning in your school?

ELR12: Jason DeRoner on Teacher Observation Tools

Eduleadership RadioIn this episode of Eduleadership Radio, Jason DeRoner, CEO of TeachBoost, joins me to discuss the impact good software can have on school leaders’ ability to provide high-quality feedback.

Let me be blunt: Most apps made specifically for principals are junk, because the developers either aren’t very good, or they don’t understand the work of principals, or both. When I tried TeachBoost, I realized something was different, and I knew I had to talk to the person behind it.

Jason DeRoner photoI had a great time talking with Jason because he deeply understands instructional supervision, and TeachBoost has developed an amazing web-based app that works on a laptop, iPad, smartphone, or just about any other web-enabled device to help principals collect great information in walkthroughs or formal observations.

TeachBoost isn’t cheap, but they do have a free plan that’s worth checking out. You can create a free account here.

In our discussion, Jason and I talk about what school leaders need from their software in order for it to make a positive difference in their work without getting in the way. Whether or not you’re interested in a particular tool, I hope you find this discussion helpful to your thinking about instructional supervision and the way you provide feedback to teachers to support their growth.

Listen Now:

Download this episode (MP3 format, 27 minutes, 14 MB)

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Seattle’s Child Magazine on Teacher Evaluation

Seattle’s Child Magazine has an informative article on the state of teacher evaluation in Seattle Public Schools:

“Historically, there has not been a lot of will inside the school system to conduct a serious evaluation of employees. There’s been a failure of will to simply make use of the tools the district already had,” [school board member Steve] Sundquist says. “But this administration (under Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson) recognizes something needs to be done. The evaluation piece is critical. It’s front and center in the ways to improve how the district performs on behalf of our children.”

Read more

The article references the National Council on Teacher Quality‘s report on the state of the teacher workforce in Seattle, which was recently commissioned by the Alliance for Education. You can download a PDF of the report here.

One of the proposed changes is a four-tier evaluation system. Rather than receive a “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory” rating, teachers would be marked unsatisfactory, basic, proficient, or advanced. Similar change are under consideration at the state level.